Music/Sound Studio Design

Firstly I’ll describe what this rant isn’t. Its not about acoustics, equipment layout, facility design or ergonomics. There are plenty of experts with plenty of opinions available elsewhere. What I’m interested in having a think about is the aesthetics of music/sound studios and the impact short term & long term those aesthetics have on people like you and I who create, work & lets face it, live an important part of our lives within.
Architecture encompasses this territory of aesthetics, as does Interior Design, but for me it is the former that has had the deepest impact on an appreciation for our surroundings. And once that awareness has been acknowledged it grows & develops similarly to an appreciation for music. Initially it is driven by naivete & instant gratification but as experience becomes broader an appreciation based on comparison & personal history occurs; in a sense you are what you are exposed to.
The first myth with regards to studio design I’d like to dispel is one of budget. While many of the studios you see featured in trade magazines may or may not appeal to your sense of taste, they are undeniably ‘flash’. They reek of having had money invested, far beyond the requirements of equipment & acoustics. But the budget aspect rapidly becomes undone when you consider that money does not buy taste. To fully appreciate this concept you only have to drive through a new residential subdivision in an affluent area & seriously consider the houses that ‘rich’ people build. To me most of them are ugly beyond belief and while taste is by definition personal, what has to be acknowledged is that the means by which those people acquired their wealth in most cases has nothing to do with developing a sophisticated or even experienced sense of aesthetics. Considering what is built in this country it seems the reverse is almost true but thats just my opinion & as that old saying goes; “opinions are like arses, everyone has one.”
But to further consider my point it is worth having a look at what the industry consider ‘beautiful’ studios. Mix Magazine, an ostensibly american magazine, publishes an annual ‘best of’ for studio design, best of 2008 is here and best of 2007 is here
I’m not sure why but it feels as though most of the studios displayed in those collections were created by the same half dozen designers, and that isn’t because good acoustics require a certain unified aesthetic approach. There is a shared conservative blandness between a lot of these rooms and maybe that stems from the fact that large scale studios and facilities are, generally speaking, created not to serve the people who work in them but to create an impression on the ‘clients’.
But the thing with clients is that they only tend to be at a facility for a short time period eg even a big budget feature film mix tends to last no longer than two months. Accordingly the longer term impact on the people who work there is of less concern to facility owners than the short term. In some facilities there is also almost a disregard for natural human requirements eg windows/natural light. Back in the day when everyone worked on Steenbeck film editors I appreciate you could not have a room flooded with natural light, but that doesnt apply any more with sound editors working on LCD screens and it totally ignores the impact of such simple things as knowing whether its night or day! Same goes for fresh air, personally I hate air conditioning! If the rooms too hot I’d rather open a window but admittedly I don’t live in a humid environment with temperature extremes…
Relatedly, I recently bought a book from amazon because the title intrigued the hell out of me: “Making Tracks: Unique Recording Studio Environments” – wow! My mind boggled at the thought of seeing inside unique artists studios! A week later the book arrived & my feeling of potential inspiration exited. While I would definitely describe many of the rooms as unique please don’t presume thats a compliment. The book features 18 studios and while many of them exist in unique & beautiful natural settings there was only one that had any aesthetic appeal to me, where I felt instantly inspired & began dreaming about the kind of feeling one would have working & creating there. Now I totally appreciate that critique is my opinion and rather than dwell on the negative I am going to ignore what I don’t like & talk about what does appeal & why, in this case; Peter Gabriels Real World Studios and in particular The Big Room.

 


I can hear you laughing already – “but he said in the last paragraph that budget doesn’t matter and then he chooses Real World as an example! WTF!?!!” – I appreciate the irony, but the reality is this: that room is kitted out with some hell expensive equipment, but that isnt what I makes it unique. There is an equipment list for The Big Room here and although I suspect the list hasn’t been updated a in a year or two, it isn’t the gear that interests me, its the feel of that room! I appreciate a lot of money has been invested designing and building that room structurally – it takes a genius to create a contemporary addition to a traditional building and make it seem like a natural progression & they have certainly achieved it with this studio. But the two factors that immediately appeal to me are natural light and the sense of space.
The desire for natural light in a sound studio creates two issues: acoustics & sound leakage. The first is solved by being careful where the windows are relative to speaker placement, obviously aiming to avoid any direct reflections in that crucial zone between sound leaving the speakers & reaching your ears. Acoustically glass obviously reflects sound and therefore one must be careful with slap or flutter echoes, particularly if there is any chance of two glass surfaces interacting. But hey, if Real World can manage to have that much glass in a crucial mixing environment, then its going on my MUST HAVE list of an ideal studio/creative work space.
So the other aspect is space. Unless you are building from scratch (I wish…) then the options on available space may be dictated to you. But if you have never spent time working/creating in a large room/studio space then you may be totally unaware of the effect it has on you. In my youth, I was lucky enough to rent & live in a church in central Christchurch for a year or so and my studio/band practice room/lounge was a room 1000 sq ft in size which had 3m ceiling. And wow, the jams, parties & fun we had in that room! But even when I was there alone I appreciated how having that amount of space around you allowed you to think & work differently. Many people spend a lot of time & money on their studio speakers, but forget that a 20Hz sound wave has a wavelength of 6.86 metres… so they buy their expensive speakers with subwoofer, put it in their little room & grin at how much bottom end there is! But what exactly are they hearing? All I know from experience is that the bigger the room the better, accordingly I would (& did) rent a larger, cheaper industrial space in which to build my studio, rather than a smaller, tidy office space. Accordingly my main room is 11metres long, 6 metres wide and has a 4m high ceiling… and the air molecules in here have a lot of fun!

Ok, so lets look at a few other studios; one unique example that immediately springs to mind is the studio of Vince Clarke which has apparently now been split up & sold – interesting use of space & light!

 

Orgon are a german company that make some unusual looking high end speakers and accordingly make a unique contribution to the aesthetics of a few studios including that of Thomas Brinkman

 

The Wire magazine published an interview with musician & producer Vladislav Delay and in the background you can see the unique studio that he works in – I love the minimalist approach to furniture….. check out the height of his desk!

Lastly, someone who has spent a lot of time in studios: Brian Eno. Funnily enough when I went searching for photos of his studio space what I discovered was what might well be the most pragmatic & efficient means of insuring your studio exists in an interesting & creative space – make it portable! Have a read of this interview

So theres just a few ideas that may be food for thought… it seems crazy considering the creative work that is done in some studios that if you hid the MIDI keyboards & synths that you could easily mistake it for accountants office! Or at the other extreme a swiss massage room/sauna with excessive amounts of highly polished wood… surely there are other options? Paste any links of inspiring spaces you have seen in the comments – one day I plan to build from scratch my own minimalist/zen acoustic space; a Temple of Sound if you like, so I am always stashing ideas & links away…. No doubt I will become some architects nightmare job!

Photo credits: Real World first and second, Vince Clarke first and second, Thomas Brinkman first and second, Vladislav Delay photo and Brian Eno photo…. Arigatou gozimasu!

8 Responses to Music/Sound Studio Design

  1. Great post!

    Due to my obsessive compulsive tendencies, I’ve often sacrificed ergomonics for aesthetics. I’ve worked on less than ideal stands and tables because of their appearance, and spent hours aligning tabletop instruments, effects, and controllers like some “electronic Zen garden” so their layout would feel just right.

    I agree that most of the “best of” choices in Mix magazine all seem to have been drawn up by the same half dozen designers, and that they probably look that way to appeal to prospective clients. That said, I’m glad I work alone and rarely have to show prospective clients my austere workspace.

    Even if I did have an unlimited budget, I think I’d stick to a minimal, no wires showing (but easy to take apart, move and rearrange) setup. Now that the sound of software instruments and effects is becoming increasingly sophisticated, it’s much easier to keep creative environments clean and clutter free. I’d also like to set up a part of the studio with something comfortable I could lay on to listen to music or take breaks.

    A minimalist workspace is like a blank slate you can use to come up with new ideas and find solutions to complex music and sound design problems. I for one have a lot of trouble working in a messy studio. Have you ever considered basing your studio design on a Japanese tatami room?

    The following link isn’t really about studio spaces or tatami rooms, but I’m sure you’ll find some of the pics and ideas inspiring.

    http://homerejuvenation.blogspot.com/

    Gambatte!

  2. tim says:

    The biggest influence on me as far as architecture, interiors & the use of space & light is Japanese architect Tadao Ando. I was following a very vague instinct when I first visited one of his buildings many years ago & it has since become a bit of a pilgrimage for me.
    Despite many of his buildings being very contemporary they fill me with the same sense of quiet appreciation of my surroundings, of nature & of time & space as do the Zen temples of Kyoto…
    Photos of msot of the Tadao Ando buildings I have visited are here:
    http://www.steampunk.co.nz/travelzen
    Before leaving each building (knowing it could be some years before I return) I always try to find a favourite corner & just quietly sit & absorb the feeling attached to that space. Tadao Ando is a profound artist working on a level that defies words…

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  4. michel says:

    some good points, even better pics, and just a small error… a 20hz sound has a wavelength of more than 17 meters. shouldn’t be too much of a problem to peter gabriel, though.

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